The Study of Religion and National Identity in Estonia

Estonia, the northernmost of the Baltic states, has a reputation of being one of the most secularized countries in Europe. Although the visibility of religion is rising, being ‘not religious’ is still considered normative. Estonia is a context in which notions and debates on religion, atheism, and indifference are interrelated in complex ways with the history of Estonian nationalism, and two foreign religious-secular regimes: German Lutheran and Soviet Atheism. In this interview, Chris and Atko Remmel discuss why the Estonian context is – or should be – interesting to scholars of ‘religion’. What happened during the Soviet era? What about the academic study of religion in Estonia? How did the strong connection between Estonian national identity and ‘atheism’ develop? How does this play out in the contemporary context?

This interview was recorded at the European Association for the Study of Religions’ 2018 conference on Multiple Religious Identities in Bern, Switzerland, and concludes by looking ahead to the 2019 EASR conference in Tartu, Estonia.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

The Study of Religion and National Identity in Estonia

Podcast with Atko Remmel (28 January 2019).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at: Remmel_-_The_Study_of_Religion_and_National_Identity_in_Estonia_1.1

Christopher Cotter (CC): The Estonian case in the study of religion is something that we’ve not really talked about very much on the Religious Studies Project. But I am speaking to you right now from the EASR conference in Bern where I’ve been hearing quite a bit about it. I’ve heard some papers, and it was even mentioned quite a bit in one of the keynote lectures yesterday. And so I thought it would be fantastic to get Atko Remmel, who I’ve known for a number of years now, onto the RSP to talk about the Estonian context, the study of religion in Estonia and some of the complex intersections between religion, non-religion, nationalism in this context that’s sort of been dominated historically by two foreign religious secular regimes: the German Lutheran Church and Soviet atheism. So first of all, Atko Remmel, it’s my pleasure to welcome you to the Religious Studies Project.

Atko Remmel (AR): It’s nice to be here. Thank you for having me.

CC: It’s an absolute pleasure. Just to say, Atko is senior researcher in Religious Studies and also a researcher in Cultural Studies at the University of Tartu in Estonia. And his work discusses religion, religious indifference, national identity and more, in Estonia, which is set as I’ve indicated, to be one of the most secularised countries in Europe. He has a number of publications in this broad area, including one called “Religion Interrupted: Observations on Religious Indifference in Estonia“, which is in a book, in which I and a number of RSP friends have chapters, that’s called Religious Indifference: New Perspectives from Studies on Secularisation and Non-religion, edited by Johannes Quack and Kora Schuh. And Atko is also the PI on one of the Understanding Unbelief projects, looking at Estonia. But we’ll not be talking too much about that just today. So, many of our Listeners out there may never have really thought much about the Estonian context at all. So, perhaps the way to start would be a broad introduction to Estonia, I guess, in relation to religion. A potted history! Away you go!

AR: Well, Estonia is a small country, by the Baltic Sea – one of the northern-most Baltic countries. And yes, it’s known for its very far-reaching secularisation.

CC: Yes. So we’ll be talking a lot about that in a moment, but the study of religion in Estonia: is that something relatively new – like Religious Studies, at an academic institution?

AR: Well actually, no. But to answer this question we have to look back into history. So, during the Soviet Union the only possibility to study religion was within the framework of Scientific Atheism. And another possibility was Folkloristics, where folk beliefs were studied as a part of national heritage. And after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Scientific Atheism of course faded away. And the Study of Religion was newly established under the label of Theology which, in Estonia, is an umbrella term for both Theology and the Study of Religion. And this, I would say, in the early days was more influenced by theological thinking. But in the last decade it has moved towards the Study of Religion. And the focus is on religious change, new religious movements, but mostly it’s still about Christian churches and their relationship to the state. And apart from that, religion is still studied under the discipline of Folkloristics, which in the Estonian context is another umbrella term that covers anthropology, ethnology, ethnography, but also folkloristics in its traditional sense. Since Estonia is in a bit better position than other Finno-Ugric nations that were incorporated into the Soviet Union, my colleagues have a keen interest towards their religious situation, language and so on.

CC: And of course, we’ll be hearing at the end of the interview, I hope, about a certain conference that’s going to be happening in Estonia, hosted by the Estonia Association. So it’s clearly been something that’s developing there. You mentioned the Soviet times there, and I suppose anything that we’re going to talk about in the rest of this interview will probably require a bit of historical contextualisation. So the stereotype we have is obviously (5:00) Soviets were not a massive fan of religion – suppression – end of Soviet time – maybe some sort of resurgence. But let’s . . . . Give me an actual picture.

AR: Well, it’s correct that the usual understanding of Soviet anti-religious policy is understood as something monolithic that was uniform from the start to the end. But actually, there were quite big changes in religious policy. And in some periods it was harsher, and other times less harsh. And after the Second World War, during Stalin‘s reign, the question of religion was sort-of secondary. But it changed radically under Nikita Khrushchev, who initiated an anti-religious campaign that lasted from 1958 until 1964. And in Estonia this policy had three main directions: the first one was so-called administration of the churches, which meant that different kind of legislative restrictions and direct control over the inner life of Churches; the second one was ethics propaganda for newspapers and lectures; and the third one was the development of Soviet secular rituals, to substitute religious rituals. And I would say that this administration and secular rituals were most effective. And as a result they manged to create an interruption in religious tradition, and to get rid of religion from public space. This, of course, didn’t mean that they managed to turn people into atheists. And, apart from the years of the Khrushchev anti-religious drive, atheist propaganda was actually not very visible. And atheism was one of so-called “red” subjects closely associated with the hated Soviet ideology. And also the level of atheist propaganda was quite low. And therefore it didn’t appeal to people. And so the result was widespread indifference both towards religion and atheism – like a sort of ideological vacuum, which was filled with all kinds of things when the Soviet Union finally collapsed. And this actually explains why Estonians, while considering themselves not religious, have a plethora of different beliefs and practices and so on, which are usually – in student terms – alternative spiritualties.

CC: Excellent. Thanks for that. This might be putting you on the spot a little bit. But, just for those of our Listeners who aren’t familiar with the dates, could you maybe give us the key dates in the 20th century, in Estonian history?

AR: In Estonian history . . . . Well, Estonia was at first occupied by Soviet forces in 1940, then again in 1944, then Joseph Stalin died in 1953, Khrushchev was pushed aside in 1964, and then finally the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

CC: Fantastic. I just wanted to make sure that we got that in there. I guess if our Listeners have seen “The Death of Stalin” they might be familiar with Khrushchev.

AR: Yes.

CC: Excellent. So you’ve already alluded, there, to the suppression of religion and how this, maybe, largely succeeded in the public space. But a lot of your work, then, has been focussing upon contemporary surveys, and how effective this might have been on individual lives. So, let’s get specifically into your own research. You might just want to tell us a little bit about your research journey – the kind of questions that you’ve been asking – and then, what it can tell us about religious indifference, non-religion. And then we’ll get onto this national identity element, as well.

AR: Well . . . long story short. I started out as a historian and my PhD thesis was on the institutions that were involved in Soviet anti-religious policy. It was mainly archival work. And by the time it was finished, in 2011, then the research on non-religion was already booming. (10:00) And then I got interested in how this Soviet background influences contemporary Estonian society. And by that time Estonians had already discovered this forgotten link between atheism and Estonian national identity. So for the last 4-5 years I have tried to keep a track on what’s happening in Estonian society, in connection with religion and non-religiosity. And I’m currently involved in several projects that touch these subjects. And one of them is on the Relocation of the Sacred around the Baltic Sea, which is led by my good colleague from Sweden, David Thurfjell. And it deals with the relationship between secularisation and nature spirituality. Another approach, which you already mentioned, was this Understanding Unbelief. And, in addition, we are – together with colleagues from the Czech Republic – we are compiling an edited volume with a preliminary title: Atheism and Freethinking in Central and Eastern Europe, which focusses on the twentieth and twenty-first century. And it’s a combination of historical and sociological approaches. And, hopefully, will be the first comprehensive overview of the development of current states of secular developments in that region.

CC: Fantastic. So how about we dive right into it, then? One of my favourite anecdotes from your presentation yesterday – and this might serve as a useful starter – was when the survey question, “Should the churches modernise?” was being asked. And people who were religious, people who were non-religious were maybe ticking agree, slightly agree, don’t have any opinion, vastly disagree. All over the place. And when you actually got to your qualitative work, the story was, “Should the churches modernise? Should they have electricity? Should they have Wi-Fi?” So, even the vocabulary of the questions were sort-of indicating what you might describe as secularisation of language.

AR: Yes.

CC: So, maybe that’s a way into the conversation?

AR: Yes, well. This religious gap, or this era of indifference, it’s really interesting how it has influenced society. And one of my research interests is the language my informants use, and I have identified some really interesting features. And one of them is that words or terms, religious terms, they have very negative connotations. One of the most loaded words is probably, “believer”. That has an association with mental abnormality or ignorance. And this is of course one of the successes of atheist propaganda. And I also have heard from my Russian colleagues, when they interview people and ask, “Are you a believer?” The response was “No, I’m normal.”

CC: (Laughs).

AR: And another thing – that you mentioned – is religious illiteracy. And also this secularisation of language. So this religious illiteracy: since religion in Estonian Society has had really low visibility, people sort-of don’t recognise the appearances of it. And they also are unable to express their thoughts about religion because of the lack of knowledge. And there is a really interesting story. In Turto there is a Marian Church that was turned into a gym during the Soviet era. And the bell tower was demolished and so on. But it still had the very specific features of a sacral building, like large arched windows and so on. I heard from my informants that when they were children, during the Soviet period, that when this building was finally given back to the congregation and turned into a sacral building again, they were really surprised when they learned that it was actually a church building! So we can call it a “religious blindness”, or something like that. And secularisation of language is the third interesting feature which I have found. It’s actually not so much secularisation. (15:00) It’s more like de-Christianisation: when religious terms have run dry of their Christian context. This example of church is sort of a text-book example. Where church is understood only as a building, not an organisation, or a group of people. So it can create a lot of confusion. So, yes. And then I got interested in that, because I had a hunch that non-religious people might not understand the questions in the surveys in the way they were meant to. And to some extent it seems to be true. And also it seems to be true that many questions asked in the surveys just prompt the answers, and have no relevance to people before and after that. So I’m a bit hesitant how meaningful this collected data is. And, of course, it’s always a problem but it can have much more serious results in a context where religious illiteracy is more widespread.

CC: Absolutely. It might help if we get some percentages here. I know that you had them in your presentation. You mightn’t have them to hand. But in certain surveys it’s quite an extraordinarily high number of, we might say, atheists – you might say non-identifiers, depending what the survey is. But then, on this national identity front, I notice that there was a large population of Russian Orthodox in Estonia. And so, maybe you could comment on the sort of connection between – I don’t know – Estonia, and atheism, and Russian Orthodoxy as it plays out?

AR: Yes. The point seems to be that orthodoxy is much stickier than Lutheranism. And the story with Estonians is that one of the things is the Estonian national narrative, which is a construct from 19th century, and tells a story about the Estonians’ everlasting fight for freedom. And there are two types of national narratives. One is the Golden past, another is the Promised Land. And Estonian one is the Golden Past type. But, usually, this Golden Past refers to the time where the country was very powerful, great kings and so on. But in the Estonian case this Golden Past is located into pre-Christian times. And Christianity is sort-of seen as responsible for its demise. And another thing is this connection between Estonian nationality and atheism. And it’s a really interesting story. But it has actually very little to do with believing or not believing in the existence of God, and rather it started out as an ethnic conflict. So the background is that Estonians were Christianised in the 13th century, during the Northern Crusades. And after that they were ruled by different other nations, until the 20th century. And this 19th century Romanticism resulted in the rise of Estonian national consciousness. And by that time, Estonia was incorporated to the Russian Empire, but Estonians were ruled by a Baltic German upper class. So most of the clergy was also German. So the Church was not perceived as Estonian, but more like German. Now, in 1905 there was a revolution in Russian Empire, and in Estonia as well. But in Estonia it took a sort-of nationalist form, so it was a fight for national autonomy. And the revolution was soon crushed and punitive squads started to do their work. And many people were executed. And then many Estonians accused German pastors that they didn’t protect their parish members, and rather collaborated with the troops. And, as a result, many Estonians didn’t go to Church any more. And, in return, Baltic Germans accused Estonians of atheism. And during the Soviet era, atheist propaganda, of course, made good use of both motives. (20:00) And then it created a new story of Estonians as historically being very sceptical towards religion, or being a religiously lukewarm nation. So in 2005 the Eurobarometer survey was published, and that revealed that only 16% of Estonians believe in a personal God. And all this information was happily put together. And Estonians started to understand themselves as the least religious – or most atheistic – country in the world, despite the fact that the survey covered only Europe!

CC: (Laughs).

AR: However, Estonians are actually not the only ones with this claim, and similar motives are present also in the Czech Republic, in Denmark, in Sweden, and in the Netherlands. So I question which country will be the least religious or most atheistic. It’s probably going to be a new Olympic Games discipline or something like that!

CC: Yes! And I wonder what the prize will be?

AR: (Laughs). God!

CC: You also had a leaflet in your presentation that said, “If you are an Estonian. . .” and listed a few things. It said ,“you do not believe in God . . . unless it’s Eurovision!” (Laughs).

AR: Right!

CC: Now I’ve only really got one more question before we talk about that important conference. But presumably, this isn’t getting the whole picture. You were showing a lot of nuance yesterday, and a lot of the beliefs and practices that these so-called non-believers, non-identifiers subscribe to. So maybe you could add a bit more nuance to this contemporary situation?

AR: Well, I will say that when we are talking about non- believers or atheists, then it basically boils down . . . that means that we are taking their identity as primary indicator, when we are talking in this way. Then, of course, the meaning of atheism in the Estonian case is sort-of different than in the Western context. It doesn’t mean the explicit denial of God, or something like that. Rather it refers to just not being Christian. And since atheism is the only known secular tradition in the Estonian context it has a very, very wide meaning.

CC: Excellent. So we are at about 25 minutes, which is a perfect time for me to just say that obviously we’re recording at the EASR in Bern, in Switzerland. But the 2019 EASR is in Tartu in Estonia. So perhaps you could maybe sell the conference a little bit? Just in terms of why might people want to come? But also, you could give us a hint of the intellectual thrust of the conference.

AR: The topic of the conference is “Religion: Continuations and Disruptions”. And, you know, conferences are very much like birthday parties. When you like the people, then you go! And at the same time they are like sort of style parties. And the topic gives the debates this general direction. So this topic was, of course, inspired by Eastern European recent history – which is actually a continuation of different disruptions. And this notion applies to religion as well. And religion and the understanding of religion is constantly changing. So we thought that it would give a good direction for our style party, to become fruitful basis for discussing whatever changes occur in regard to religion. But other than that, Tartu is just a very lovely town. And by the way, our restaurant street is just 50 metres from the conference venue! And for the conference party we have a place called Gunpowder Cellar, which is really an old gunpowder cellar that is turned into a restaurant and claims to be a pub with the highest ceiling in the world. Which is around 11 metres.

CC: So, the highest ceiling in the world and the lowest religiosity in the world!

AR: (Laughs). Exactly! They go together, hand-in-hand!

CC: Fantastic! One final question. (25:00) This conference that we’re at right now, the theme is “Multiple Religious Identities.” So, maybe, just a final thought from you on how the Estonian context and that conference theme of multiple religious identities maybe speak to each other? Or not?

AR: Of course they speak to each other: they are both religion-related. But, of course, there are continuations of religious identities, and all this overlapping and constant changing. So I would say this: our conference in Tartu will be a mental continuation of this topic here.

CC: Excellent! Well, Listeners, if you want to continue with a mental continuation, in about a year’s time we should have a number of podcasts from Tartu for you! But, for now, thanks for that really expansive, but also quite specific, teaser for the situation in Estonia and for your own research. So do check out Atko’s profile. And thank you very much!

AR: Thank you!

Citation Info: Remmel, Atko and Christopher Cotter. 2019. “The Study of Religion and National Identity in Estonia”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 28 January 2019. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 20 October 2018. Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/the-study-of-religion-and-national-identity-in-estonia/

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Minority Religions in the Secret Police Archives

CaptureJames Kapaló takes us inside the Eastern European secret police archives to show us how minority and new religious groups were portrayed. We explore the visual and material presence of religious minorities in the secret police archives in Hungary, Romania and the Republic of Moldova. In particular, we look at Inochentism, a new religious movement in Moldova and Romania. In the discussion, we consider the theoretical and methodological issues in working in archives suh as these, and the historiography of NRMs. We also discuss the complexity of the religious field in post-Communist Europe.

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A transcription of this interview is also available, and has been pasted below.

Minority Religions in the Secret Police Archives

Podcast with James Kapaló  

Interviewed by David Robertson

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

David Roberston (DR): I’m here in Edinburgh, on a beautiful sunny day, and I’m pleased to be joined by Dr James Kapaló from the University College, Cork, where he’s Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion. First of all: welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

James Kapaló  (JK): Thank you, I’m pleased to be here.

DR: And we’re pleased to be talking to you today about your research programme, which is called “Creative Agency in Religious Minorities: Hidden Galleries in the Secret Police Archives in Central and Eastern Europe”. And the obvious place to start, then, is to tell us a little bit about the project.

JK: Great, well, its a bit of a mouthful! But the project really focuses on the secret police archives as a resource for the history and anthropology, let’s say, of contemporary religions in the region. And anyone that knows a little bit about Eastern European history, will be familiar with the authoritarian, sort-of communist regimes, and before them the fascist regimes, that held sway in most of the region. And with the change of system that came in 1989-1990 , the fall of the Berlin Wall, the secret police archives – the archives of the security services – began to be opened up to victims, but also to the scholarly community, to research, to look into. And this created a dramatic change, if you like, in the study of religions in the region. I mean, prior to that, there was a lot of Western scholarship on East and Central Europe, and that was very much of a kind of “advocacy” scholarship type. So, because groups were persecuted under Communism, Western scholars tended to advocate for their human rights, political rights and so on. Post the change of system, the archives took on an identity as the site of “truths” about that past: truths in the sense that people wanted to discover, you know, who the agents had been, who the collaborators had been. The focus was on mainstream political actors, but also mainstream religious figures from the period: bishops that had been arrested and incarcerated, sometimes died, and so- on. So the archive represented an opportunity. But at the heart of the use of the archives there’s a central paradox, which was that these archives were produced by authoritarian, totalitarian regimes, which were discredited. But at the same time, they were considered to hold truths about the period. So, the opening of the archive actually created a lot of controversy. There were blackmail cases, especially of high-profile politicians and religious figures, who were compromised by the findings. It was all part of a process called “lustration”, which was, in post-Communism, vetting people that will go into the public sphere to check that they were not compromised by their past. So, from a Study of Religions perspective, there are some important questions – if you like some dilemmas – to face the scholar. And in 2014, I was lucky enough to spend . . . . I had a sabbatical, so I spent six months in the secret service archives in Romania, and also a couple of months in the Republic of Moldova, looking at KGB files. And what I discovered was that they also contain – apart from containing these incredible biographies of people’s lives, which were collected by agents and often extracted under duress in quite extreme circumstances, sometimes – they also contain a gallery of confiscated materials, artistic products. (5:00) So, not generally the kind of more impressive forms of art, but the ephemera of religious lives: pamphlets, leaflets, photographs, hymns, poems, notebooks, postcards – all this kind of stuff are in the archive. And this is when I began to think about: how than those archives be used in a different way, that will perhaps will not endanger the archive? Because the archives were under threat of closure in a couple of Eastern European countries, because of all the scandals. And scholars across the globe actually campaigned for those archives to remain open. But it highlighted the fact that they needed to be used in a different way. They need to be investigated not simply as sites of truth. It was all about truth and texts: texts that tell us the truth . . . about what happened at a particular time. But they also contain this visual material component. And so that is really what the project is all about. It’s looking into the archives to explore this material. We’re taking a material religion approach, or vernacular religion approach, to the materials that are there, but also beginning to question the legitimacy of those archives to hold sacred materials. The question of the legitimacy of colonial archives in museums to hold the sacred patrimony of indigenous peoples is well-known. It’s been going for several decades now. But no-one’s ever thought about that in the European contexts. We have these archives of stuff which are the product of an arbitrary power, exerted over a population. But what is their right to retrieve those confiscated items? So, the project has a couple of stages. The first stage is the basic research phase: what’s out there? It will be the mapping and creation of a digital archive on the basis of that and, obviously, the production of general scholarly work about what we can learn about cultural production and material production under authoritarianism: how religious communities used new media, photo montage, film to get their message across. The history of the use of new media for political purposes, from the same period, is well-written. But no-one’s written anything about how religious groups, especially religious minorities, managed to engage with those new media. So that’s the first stage. The second stage, then, is taking some of those items back to the communities that produced them. I mean, we’re talking, now – there’s probably a generation gap. But we’ll be fortunate enough to find some people still alive that remember the production, and the context within which those items were confiscated by the security services. So we go back to the communities and explore the meaning of that period, and the material and visual artistic products of the period, in the light of the changes that have taken place since. Because what we have today is the emergence of democracies and more open societies across Eastern Europe, and that is something that perhaps we in the West take for granted. But the societal prejudices that would underlie, and were constructed by, these extreme regimes were extremely wary of new religious groups that emerged.

DRAnd religion at all, in many cases, yes.

JK: More so than mainstream religious groups. There’s been a lot of research – church history, if you like – of mainstream groups and how they managed the situation. But religious minorities – “sectants”, as they were generally referred to – were considered to be especially dangerous, so they were subjected to the most intense oppression and persecution. So, the project will engage with those communities, try and understand how they relate to those objects now, begin a new conversation with the institutions that hold them. And this is, again, building on. . . . There’s a movement in museology – the new museology, the New Museum Movement – that really engage critically with: ethically, what do you do with materials are, perhaps, compromised by the means by which they were collected? So, posing those questions of the institutions is the final phase, and an exhibition will be constructed on that basis.

DR: Wonderful. We’ve talked about this idea of cultural. . .  how we deal with displaying and talking about – for want of a better word – ethnographic material in museums but also in other contexts, quite a few times in the religious studies project. But this is a really interesting example. You’ve kind-of touched on this already, but we’re well used to this post-colonial critique of the ins and outs of displaying, the cultural products of “far away” countries, you know, with – I’m doing scare quotes – “primitive people” and their indigenous religions. (10:00) But we’ve not been so good at applying that same critique to cultures closer to home. And do you think this project has anything to offer that?

JK: Oh, certainly. And I think there are two aspects of that, in terms of the project. One is that, as an ongoing debate in the study of East/Central Europe about the relationship between post-socialism – studies of post-socialism – and post-colonialism. Because many of the societies were actually post-colonial societies as well as being post-socialism: the two overlay each other. So, the importation of post-colonial discourses into East /Central European Studies is ongoing. And it started around questions of difficult knowledge around heritage sites and so on. So that’s the emergence of a movement there. The other is around questions of inclusivity in society, and the way that the vast differences that you talked about, between the ethnographic other and the self, have actually completely collapsed. I mean, the world is that much smaller in that we no longer can take for granted the fact that [for example,] the materials I have from indigenous peoples in Brazil are not going to be visited by indigenous Brazilians – they will be!

DR: Yes.

JK: So that has collapsed. It’s coming to that realisation that it was the product of the ethnographic eye – the ethnographic colonial eye – but also romantic nationalism in Europe where peasants were the “other”. Again the classic peasant class, in anthropological terms, has disappeared but we continue to display things as if, in Ireland, for example, there’s a romantic West of Ireland that was Irish speaking and epitomised the nation. That same problematic goes for, you know, peoples within most nation states in Europe that could be exoticised and represented as an “other”. And what we’re trying to do with this is collapse that . . .  the engaged part of the project, I mean: inclusivity – a more inclusive and holistic narrative; to try and encourage mainstream society to question their distancing of the enemy, the “other”, the heretic, the sectant, and so on; to see the human stories behind those, which have tended not to find a place within scholarship.

DR: Yes. And what’s very interesting is that the distance is not only collapsed geographically, but chronologically as well. I mean, I’m old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, so we’re talking about something within recent living memory. And I think there’s an important message there that we can apply to ethnography in general. We tend to see – when we’re talking about these so-called “primitive” cultures – that, as soon as we arrive as colonials and as scholars, that we’ve somehow changed this eternal, timeless tradition, that was always there. But the more ethnography that we do, we realise that things are constantly shifting. And this is an example,  within living memory for me, of it changing once. But there would be older people, as you have said, who would remember that situation even starting. And so we have two dramatic changes within living memory. And who’s to say that’s not been the case anywhere else?

JK: Absolutely, I mean one of the classic critiques of early anthropology, Malinowski in particular, was that the impact of British colonialism is not felt through his work, and yes, there’s this idea that when the academic arrives, when the scholar or the ethnographer arrives, you somehow sort of “create meaning” around a place, which is – OK,  it’s translatable to other cultures, to an elite, but for the people that lived at that time, it’s their time, it was their life, it is part of a continuity that on-goes. You know, I’m old enough, myself, to remember very well the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was actually in Budapest at the time, with some friends.

DR: (laughs) Nice!

JK: And we were surrounded by East Germans waiting to cross the Berlin Wall. But I think my whole scholarly trajectory relates to the Iron Curtain. My father was a refugee from Hungary, in 1956.

DR: I see.

JK: (15:00) And as soon as I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve been visiting Hungary through the ’80s – the end of the Communist era when things were beginning to become a bit more relaxed. But I returned to Romania, to begin to do research, immediately after the fall of Communism. And this is where I witnessed this incredible upsurge in interest in religion, plus the arrival of large numbers of American US Missionaries from various denominations. Many Baptists and so on, but also many Hare Krishnas and different religious movements all descended on Eastern Europe and they were incredibly popular to begin with. At the same time, there was a resurgence of the mainstream churches, who tried to recapture that public space that they’d lost during Communism. So I think that experience – I was in my late teens / early twenties – has been on the backburner and what leads, ultimately, to the project that we’re starting now. I think, so yes – a general point: I think biographies of scholars are really important. And it helps us be critical of our own positions.

DR: Yes, yes.

JK: And so when something is – like this – actually quite close to my research topic, I think it’s appropriate to expose where I’ve come from, and maybe pre-empt some of the criticisms that could be levelled at the project. Because it’s far more engaged than many contemporary Study of Religions or Religious Studies Projects would be. But I draw the line at being. . .  or, I try and delineate a position between advocacy and engaged scholarship. For me, there’s a very clear separation there.

DR: I was going to ask: what particular kinds of new religious movements, or minority religions, are we talking about here? Are we predominantly talking about, you know, the religions of immigrants? Or are we talking about quite innovative new religious movements? What was the religious picture on the ground?

JK: So, again, going back to the sort of description of the inspiration of the project, there’s a lot of scholarship. . . . Well, what characterises scholarship on religions in Eastern Europe today? Two very strong currents are: scholarship from the West, funded by institutions in the West, that have looked at all of the main missionary – Christian missionary – religions that were present in Eastern Europe and were persecuted so:  Jehovah Witnesses, Adventists, Baptists, Evangelicals of different kinds. So, there’s a large body of historical scholarship on those communities. At the same time, within the region, scholars from those communities have gone into the archive and have decided to write their own histories of their oppression and persecution. So the project doesn’t actually look at those groups.Because there’s  another group that’s fallen off the radar, which are the more kind-of locally-inspired groups that formed around local charismatic leaders, or local powerful pilgrimage sites, around prophets and seers, behind monks and priests, that came into conflict with the church – often because they felt the church had been compromised by its engagement with or collaboration with the regime. So one group, in particular, that I’ve been looking at for the last four or five years now, is called “Inochentism”. It comes from an Orthodox monk named Ioan Inochentie Levizor. He comes

Inochentist women

Inochentist women

from the border region between Russia and Romania. And he initiated a charismatic movement that soon became labelled a sect, and operated underground for over a hundred years. So, during the end of the Tsarist Russian period, during the Fascist period in Romania and during Communism in Romania and the Soviet Union, the group lived underground, digging underground cells and communities and producing a very distinctive visual culture of their own – a very distinctive literary culture of their own. That really can’t be put down simply to resistance. I don’t like reducing any movement to resistance. But actually, there’s a powerful dialogical relationship between the exertion of power on religious communities and the way that they can respond, and it gives birth to these creative responses. So, one of the key terms we’re using, when talking about the project, is: it’s taking emphasis away from religious communities as victims and looking at religious communities as creative communities.

DR: (20:00) We’ve talked to Milda Ališauskienė recently about the beginnings of the academic study of RS in that part of the world. And you touched on a similar point that she did, and that we talked about at the time: how, it’s interesting that for a part of the world that is ostensibly very Christian – I mean there’s variation across the different countries, of course – yet there’s this enormous creativity within that Christian heritage. It’s a very different situation than we see in the Northern and Western European countries – perhaps more to do with the Protestant rather than Catholic context, I think, where we see this sort of religious innovation happening, or identifying as other than Christian. Is that something that you’ve found repeated in Romania and elsewhere?

JK: Yes, absolutely. So, I would stress, really, that each of the countries of Central Europe are very different from one another, and the project covers three: it covers the Republic of Moldova, which was in the Soviet union; Romania, which is the majority Orthodox country; and Hungary, which is split between mainly Catholic and Reformed. So, the project brings in these different cultural and religious settings. But, yes, there was an incredible yearning, if you like, for spirituality. And people – towards the end of the Soviet Union and in the immediate post-Soviet period – people experimented a lot with different forms of religious seeking, which wasn’t. . . . Much of it wasn’t beyond the pale for the Soviet regime and the Communist regimes. They were just wary of the formation of communities that might go alongside that, that would produce an alternate source of authority for groups. So that’s certainly the case. I mean the countries that I’ve worked in – Romania especially – is very strongly Orthodox today, in fact there’s been a massive revival in monasticism in Romania. So, I’d say on the whole, Romania has tended to stay within the Christian tradition, Protestant groups are becoming stronger, especially Pentecostals amongst the Roman community, which is a very interesting sort of area of investigation. It opens up all sorts of comparative possibilities with other parts of the world: Africa and Latin America where it’s similarly. . . Pentecostal forms of Christianity are very popular. But the influence of those groups – the global spread of Pentecostalism, for example – has not been really explored yet with Eastern Orthodoxy or within Catholicism in Eastern Europe, fully. So again, the group that I’m working on, they date back to 1909/1908, which is very soon after the first Pentecostal appeared in the region. And, coincidentally enough, the idea of the action of the Holy Spirit in the world was, sort of pre-eminent. And, in fact, the leader of the movement was considered to be the Holy Spirit embodied or incarnate, and possession, exorcism, healing were right at the heart of the movement. And women took on much greater, very important roles, had a greater range of competencies, if you like, within their religious communities. So these are all very interesting questions to do with the issues of gender and power and authority, and. . . .

DR: But also, they’re all features that we would expect to find in more typical New Age and Millennial new religious movements in the West. And even, just to take the classic example of  When Prophecy Fails  from the ‘50s, that’s exactly what we see. We see the central leader identifying as the incarnation of the Holy Spirit, we see prophecy, we see healing central, we see the role of women specifically as channellers: it’s exactly the same pattern that we would expect to see, except within this Christian context.

JK: And I think, what drives much of so many of those points, is also marginalisation.

DR: Yes.

JK: So the process of being marginalised, feeling marginalised, encourages certain religious responses. And that’s certainly what you see in Eastern Europe. I hesitate to use “Eastern Europe” or “Central Europe” in a blanket way, but. . .

DR: (25:00) It’s OK. We only give you twenty-five minutes, so we understand that sometimes there are some complications!

JK: The other point about the project – which I forgot to mention earlier, actually – is that we’ve chosen three different countries and three different societies. The project has another mission to try and encourage cross-cultural, and also inter-disciplinary, but transnational collaboration between Religious Studies scholars in Eastern/ Central Europe. I mean it already goes on, but I think there’s a lot more to be done. There’s a lot of barriers in terms of language, and this has obviously been overcome, to a certain extent, by the increasing use of English in the academic sphere. But I think there are a lot of issues and questions, that scholars in Lithuania, and Hungary, and Romania, and Moldova, and Ukraine have in common, that they can engage with much more vibrantly, if you like, across the region.

DR: Well that’s a perfect place to draw this to a close. Because the Religious Studies Project. . .  we’re striving to bring in scholars from this part of the world, particularly, and people talking about this part of the world. So, you know, we’ll certainly be featuring a lot more. . . . Hopefully we’ll be recording some at the EASR and the IAHR this year coming. Marion Bowman’s currently working on a project involving a lot of Eastern European scholars on the idea of pilgrimage, so hopefully we’ll speak to her. But, as an introduction to this field, this has been an absolute pleasure. So, thank you, James, for taking part in the Religious Studies Project.

JK: Thank you very much, again, for the invitation.

Citation Info: Kapaló, James 2017. “Minority Religions in the Secret Police Archives”, The Religious Studies Project (Podcast Transcript). 8 May 2017. Transcribed by Helen Bradstock. Version 1.1, 4 May 2017 Available at: https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/minority-religions-in-the-secret-police-archives/

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Communism and Catholicism: Religion and Religious Studies in Lithuania

Under Communism, religion was suppressed in the formerly Catholic Eastern European country of Lithuania until the 1990s. Milda Ališauskienė tells David Robertson about the religious field like in a country where religion was banned for half of the 20th century. Do we see a simple resurgence of Catholicism, or something more complex? What about New Religious Movements – are there new forms of vernacular Lithuanian religious expression? How does immigration affect this field?

indexThe second half of the interview discusses the practicalities of how you go about setting up and running a Religious Studies department in a post-Soviet country such as Lithuania. While there was no academic study of religion during the Soviet era, this has also affected the public perception of the need for such a study. This interview presents a fascinating inside look at the study of religion between two hegemonies – Communism and Catholicism.

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